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Upscale Chicago eateries serving prisoners’ produce

University of Illinois Extension Service's Ron Wolford and Sheriff Tom Dart pose with part of the Cook County Jail garden's 2009 harvest. Charlie Trotter’s bought 225 pounds of prisoner-raised produce last year.

University of Illinois Extension Service’s Ron Wolford and Sheriff Tom Dart pose with part of the Cook County Jail garden’s 2009 harvest. Charlie Trotter’s bought 225 pounds of prisoner-raised produce last year.

Over on the Near West Side, Jim Andrews’ Felony Franks, a hot-dog stand launched last year to give ex-offenders jobs and a second chance, is still stirring controversy, but on the fine-dining front, restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s in Lincoln Park and The Publican in the West Loop are more quietly benefiting from the labor of Cook County Jail inmates.

Last month, the jail dedicated a new 1,500-square-foot greenhouse on the jail grounds at 3026 S. California Ave., where, since 1993, in a training program started in partnership with the University of Illinois Extension Service, inmates have raised more than 50 tons of fresh produce in a 14,000 square-foot garden.

In 2009, the jail announced, Charlie Trotter’s bought 225 pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, basil, rosemary, mint and lemon thyme raised by inmates.

Formerly, the veggies and herbs were mainly donated to homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations, including Lillydale Baptist Church, Inspiration Cafe, Sisters of Charity, Freedom Temple, St. Blaze and Share the Harvest, but sales of microgreens and other vegetables to high-end restaurants are now intended to make the program self-sustaining. An expanded program will increase participation from about 30 prisoner participants to 110 a year and allow the jailed gardeners to start produce more economically from seed rather than purchased plants.

The new jail greenhouse began with over 300 flats of vegetables and herbs, including basil, mustard greens, cucumbers and carrots, plus flowers such as sunflowers and morning glories.